Feb 19, 2016 NEW YORK (SUN) Part Three Continued.
THE BHAKTA PROGRAM AND ASHRAMA LIFE
When I moved into the temple I left my previous life behind. With the exception of my elder brother Lawrence, none of my relatives or friends knew that I was now a resident of the Hare Krishna Center in Manhattan. In those days there was nothing like the instant communication devices that we have today. There were no cell phones, personal computers, Internet or social media. Phones were attached to wires attached to walls, computers were as big as a family-size refrigerator and were used for calculating numbers for corporations, and the Internet did not exist. You couldn't check someone's status on Facebook or Twitter or send them an e-mail or text. Current events were reported in newspapers, on television and radio.
There I was, shaved head with sikha, body painted with tilaka, wearing Tulasi neckbeads, kurta and dhoti, serving out heaping helpings of rice prasadam to the guests at the Free Sunday Love Feast. I was feeling a little blissful.
There was always a long line for the soul-satisfying Free Sunday Love Feast preparations of Sri Sri Radha Govinda Mandira. I would know, having been one of those standing on that same line just a week or so prior. But don't take my word for it.
Here is an excerpt from The Hare Krishna Gourmet Guide of Vegetarian Cooking by Adiraja dasa, copyright 1984:
"Khati mithi sabji (Sweet and sour vegetables) – Visnu Gada is a devotee well-known for his devotional cooking. While he was chief cook of the New York temple, he cooked a sumptuous feast for over three hundred people every Sunday for eight years. This dish was often the highlight of those feasts."
As I stood there doling out spoonfuls of Krsna's mercy I recognized the faces of my friends who brought me to the temple for the first time and some of my other friends from my neighborhood in Queens who had been coming to the temple for a very long time. They had even visited the Henry Street temple in Brooklyn.
You can not imagine the look of surprise on all their faces. At first they did not even recognize me. I wouldn't have recognized me either. I was a long-haired hippy type in jeans and t-shirt only a few short days ago and now I was a shaved-head happy type in dhoti and kurta.
As each of my acquaintances reached the front of the line and were standing directly in front of me their facial expressions changed. Their eyes grew wide and their conversations stopped mid-sentence as it dawned on them exactly who was standing before them with a big serving spoon in hand waiting to serve them. Shocked is not the word. Big smiles and "Hare Krishnas" all around. I was feeling a little more blissful.
As I have said, in the Bhakta Program, we learned to always remember Krsna and never forget Him. I want to apply the same standard to all those devotees that have blessed me with their association. Always remember and never forget them and what they did for me. They did it out of their love for, and their desire to serve, Srila Prabhupada and Krsna. This fallen conditioned soul will forever be in their debt.
vancha-kalpatarubhyas ca krpa-sindhubhya eva ca
patitanam pavanebhyo vaisnavebhyo namo namah
I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaisnava devotees of the Lord, who can fulfill the desires of everyone, just like desire trees, and who are full of compassion for the fallen souls.
Those of us in the Bhakta Program were watched over and guided, somewhat like a mother hen, by his grace Damodara dasa prabhu. His grace Adhoksaja dasa prabhu left the Bhakta Program shortly after I moved in and took up another service, and so Damodara alone was personally instructing us in all of our daily activities. He was with us in kirtana, harinama, japa, class, honoring prasadam and every activity we participated in as a group.
He was intelligent, knowledgeable and serious about his service and at the same time he was easy-going and friendly, with a good sense of humor. He was respectful to all of us regardless of our ignorant offenses and although he was our direct authority figure and teacher in ISKCON, he never let it go to his head. He answered all of our never-ending and sometimes just plain dumb inquiries concerning devotional life. He treated us all equally and I can't recall him at anytime ever being frustrated or losing his temper or disrespecting any of us in any way.
I recall one particular feast day. All of us in the Bhakta Program were seated together in a small circle in a room with Damodara prabhu and honoring the wonderful preparations of Sri Sri Radha Govinda prasadam. It was all there on our paper plates – rice, two subjis, dahl, halava, nectar and sweets.
A feast is not a true feast without sweet rice (khir). All feasts at 340 West 55th Street in those days were true feasts and this particular feast was no exception. Every one of us "honored" multiple cups of sweet rice. It was more like "guzzled". And then we honored more cups.
And then the giggling began. At first it was just a short laugh here and there from one or another of us. Soon we were all beginning to giggle and laugh at anything.
We were getting intoxicated!
Damodara prabhu was giggling more than any of us and after a while he couldn't stop. All of our eyes were watering from all of the non-stop spiritual fun and laughter. Damodara then stood up, still giggling uncontrollably, and left the room to compose himself. After he was out the door the whole scene of him losing control for a moment and quickly stepping out the door caused the rest of us to start a fresh gaggle of unrestrained laughter.
Everyday we were treated to the maha sweets offered to Sri Sri Radha Govinda. In the mornings, after Mangala-arati, and during japa when everyone was chanting HARE KRSNA HARE KRSNA KRSNA KRSNA HARE HARE / HARE RAMA HARE RAMA RAMA RAMA HARE HARE, the Bhakta Program devotees could leave the temple room and return to the sixth floor for some maha prasadam. Burfi, pera, and shrikhand were my personal favorites. The sweetest part of the maha sweets were the Tulasi leaves that were placed on top of them when they were offered. I would always save those for last.
Some of us would take advantage by acting depressed or grumpy or expressing a desire to not chant japa in order to gain the sympathy of Damodara or Niranjana and receive extra portions of the maha sweets. (I'm in maya, prabhu! Is there anymore burfi?) Bhakta Mitch was very good at acquiring multiple pieces of burfi and pera.
I developed a mild addiction to shrikhand. After graduating from the Bhakta Program one of the services I acquired was the transfer of the maha sweets from the Lord's plates into serving containers and plates for the Bhakta Program. What I would do was transfer the prasadam and carefully wash and dry the Lord's plates. Once that was done I would pour some of the delicious shrikhand into a paper cup and hide it somewhere in the transfer area. Once Damodara prabhu arrived I would give him the transferred prasadam and he would take it upstairs. When the coast was clear I would abscond with the ill-gotten goods.
After a while it must have become apparent that the amount of shrikhand being brought up to the Bhakta Program was diminishing day by day. One morning after completing my rascal style of transferring and was replacing the Lord's plates in cabinets, Damodara prabhu arrived a little bit earlier than usual. He explained to me that lately, somehow or other, there wasn't enough shrikhand to distribute to the bhaktas. He asked me if anyone was taking any while I was there and of course I, the rascal, replied in the negative. He then began searching under tables and in cabinets to see if he could find any of the missing shrikhand. In a manner of minutes he found my paper cup of shrikhand. I am sure my face was turning all sorts of shades of red in embarrassment and shame but he didn't say anything to me. He simply took the cup and placed it with the rest of the transferred maha and left.
All that day I was in anxiety about being caught committing such an offense. That is just one indication of my true character. I was not in anxiety while committing those offenses or about committing the offenses. My anxiety was about being caught. This is an example of my ignorance. I actually thought that because no one saw me I was free. Krsna is in my heart so He saw what I was doing. The sun and the moon planets saw what I was doing. So I was caught from the moment I began my nonsense. I was just too ignorant and lusty to realize it. This is also an example of how the tongue is voracious and difficult to control. I lost track of the concept of pleasing the Vaisnavas and instead was only concerned with pleasing my tongue.
The next morning, when I went down to transfer the maha, I found Damodara prabhu already there performing the service. I was effectually relieved of that service and of anymore shrikhand.
While writing this I just had this very minor realization. To this day I have not had any more shrikhand. I could prepare it myself and offer it to Srila Prabhupada and Krsna but I never have. I have also lived in the Hartford temple, the Lake Huntington temple, the Puerto Rico temple and was a regular visitor to the Miami Beach temple, and in all that time I never even had the opportunity to honor that particular sweet. That is almost 40 years now without my favorite maha sweet.
After becoming acclimated to the daily schedule of activities and becoming somewhat steady in following that schedule we were expected to do some type of service in the temple. Most of us went to the temple basement to serve in Srimati Radharani's kitchen.
Washing pots and pans for hours on end might not sound very enticing but it was my favorite service. I enjoyed scrubbing and scouring the giant pots used for cooking and the large serving containers. The kitchen was always busy with so many devotees cooking and cleaning.
Visnu Gada dasa prabhu was in charge of the kitchen and the main cook. He was always cool, calm and collected while overseeing the multitude of devotional services being performed in love and devotion to Srila Prabhupada and Krsna in the kitchen. He would be in the midst of preparing two or three different foodstuffs himself and at the same time he would be giving directions to a number of other devotees also preparing different offerings.
There were more than 100 devotees residing in the temple and when the traveling parties returned and if there was a big festival like Ratha Yatra or Janmastami, there could be as many as 300 or more devotees in attendance. Every Sunday there was the Free Sunday Love Feast to prepare and serve for hundreds of residents and guests. Every day and every Sunday in particular I would head to the kitchen and scrub, scour and rinse and then scrub, scour and rinse as more pots and transfer containers piled up in front of the sink.
Our duties were not limited to just cleaning. My fellow bhaktas and I would also cut fruits and vegetables. We would transfer the preps from pots to serving containers. We would go into the walk-in refrigerator and retrieve different types of bhoga for the brahmana cooks. We were not allowed to cook until we received second initiation. Obviously none of us were even first initiates.
After I had been serving in the kitchen every day for a couple of weeks I was given a small service to perform. Visna Gada prabhu asked me to serve a Vaisnava who resided outside of the temple. Every morning this particular devotee gentleman would come to the temple before he went to his job and Visnu Gada would give him a plate of maha-prasadam from the morning offering. I was requested to perform this service on the rare occasions when Visnu Gada was not present when the devotee arrived.
In my mind at the time I assumed every Vaisnava wore dhoti and tilaka and shaved head with sikha. We all know what may happen when we assume. So you may imagine my surprise when I dutifully transferred some maha to a paper plate and brought it to the door of the kitchen. I was expecting, in my ignorance, to see a Vaisnava in full devotional attire. Instead, in my materially contaminated imperfect vision, I saw a male Indian body dressed in suit and tie with a full head of hair and a thick moustache.
In my mind I was saying, this isn't a devotee. This is some Indian karmi. How could he be a devotee with that big moustache. Regardless of what my mind was telling me, I performed my service in a gentlemanly manner. I performed this same service a few times after and each time my mind would object and my false-ego would flatter, but I went ahead and did what I was requested without objection or question or offense to the gentleman. Except in my mind.
When I was part of a fire sacrifice months later, and received harinama initiation, that particular Indian bodied gentleman, whom I had served those few times at the kitchen door, was receiving brahminical initiation. Today he is a well-known sannyasi in ISKCON.
In the mornings and afternoons the devotees came together to honor prasadam. Breakfast prasadam was served after Srimad Bhagavatam class and was served in the temple room. The reason for this was the temple room was the only space in the temple that could accommodate all of the residents at one time. Lunch prasadam was served on the third floor. There were fewer devotees present in the temple during the day due to the large number of residents out on book distribution and other services which were performed outside of the temple. There were separate rooms for the men and for the women.
I recall one day honoring kittri lunch prasadam. Prasadam was served with everyone sitting on the floor in rows back to back and facing each other. The prasadam servers would go down each row pushing the serving container in front and spooning out portions onto paper plates. On this day Kapindra dasa prabhu was sitting directly across from me and the server spilled some kittri on the floor next to his plate.
Kittri is very moist and will leak through a paper plate and consequently beneath every paper plate was a slight stain of kittri on the floor. When Kapindra prabhu finished honoring his prasadam he picked up his plate and licked off all the remaining bits of prasadam. When that was done the prabhu then bent his face to the floor and licked up all the kittri that had been spilled and the kittri that had leaked through his plate. Then he offered his obeisances to Srila Prabhupada. He then threw away the paper plate, went to the sink nearby and wet a cloth rag, and cleaned up the space he had occupied on the floor.
To me that was an example of faith in the teachings he imbibed from his spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. Prasadam is Krsna's mercy. Srila Prabhupada sacrificed his life to bring that mercy to the world. What fixed-up faithful disciple of Srila Prabhupada and servant of Krsna will intentionally waste His mercy? I could plainly see that I had a loooooooooooong way to go to approach that level of faith in the words of the pure devotee.
In the evenings, after attending Mangala-arati, Prema-dhvani and Nrsimha prayers, Tulasi-arati, chanting sixteen rounds of japa, Srngara-arati, Guru-puja and Srimad Bhagavatam class and performing service in the temple in the morning, after going out on harinama in the afternoon and then attending Sandhya-arati and Srimad Bhagavad-gita class, the bhaktas would return to the sixth floor.
We would all sit in a group on the floor just outside of Niranjana's room and honor a prasadam meal of hot milk and either fresh popcorn or some other preparation which was light and easily digestible. While we all honored our evening meal Niranjana would read to us from Krsna Book. That was so enlivening and relishable and transcendentally refreshing to hear Krsna's pastimes in the company of the Vaisnavas at the end of an eighteen hour day. His pastimes would be fresh in our consciousnesses as we took rest.